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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 3 November 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 3 November 1997

3 November 1997
Third CommitteeRepatriation ChallengesHumanitarian principles and the concerns of StatesReintegration of returnees in post-conflict situationsA more comprehensive and better coordinated UN approachConcluding remarks

Mr Chairman, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to report that the total number of refugees and other people of concern to UNHCR, from a peak of 26 million in 1996, has fallen to about 23 million. This is the first reversal of a trend of rapid increase: from two million people of concern to my Office in 1970, numbers had risen to eight million by 1980, only to double again by the end of the decade.

This reduction is related to positive trends in the international environment. The settlement of some long-standing civil wars has permitted millions of refugees and other uprooted persons to return home. In places as diverse and far apart as Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Togo and Viet Nam, solutions have continued to be consolidated for millions of refugees. And a number of other situations, which all too recently seemed intractable, have taken a more positive turn. In Liberia, for example, the July elections have given a positive signal to half a million refugees hosted for years in neighbouring countries, prompting thousands to return spontaneously, and brightening hopes for the successful achievement of an organized voluntary repatriation for the others. In the Western Sahara, peace negotiations have opened up new prospects for the return of tens of thousands of Sahraoui refugees who have lived in exile for more than 20 years.

Repatriation Challenges

The most daunting challenges to repatriation, however, continue to be in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. In recent months, the challenges faced by UNHCR in that region have been indeed without precedent in the history of my Office. They have left little space for any meaningful exercise of the international protection role the United Nations General Assembly established my Office to perform, and which this Committee has supported so strongly over the years.

The attack on refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, and their destruction in late 1996, led to the precipitous return to Rwanda of 600,000 refugees. Our request for an international military force to assist in an operation to rescue the hundreds of thousands of others who fled westward into the vast forests of Zaire, went unheeded. Together with other humanitarian organisations, my Office was left to its own devices in searching and rescuing refugees, often inside conflict zones. We found ourselves confronted with the dilemma of deciding whether to repatriate refugees to Rwanda, including to areas where their safety could not be guaranteed, or to leave them to almost certain death in the forests of Zaire. Access to refugees was frequently limited, obstructed or denied and makeshift refugee sites were subjected to attacks and other atrocities by military forces. While our efforts permitted the evacuation of a quarter of a million Rwandans, many others perished either of starvation and disease or at the hands of military forces.

In the aftermath of these events, remaining Rwandans are now left scattered across a number of Central African countries. Proposals by UNHCR to identify and protect those with valid reasons for not wanting to return home yet, and to exclude from refugee status those who do not qualify for international protection, have been so far been implemented only in Malawi and the Central African Republic, thus further jeopardising the protection of genuine refugees.

As I informed the Security Council on 9 September, repeated violations of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers compelled me to suspend activities on behalf of Rwandan refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, further violations have occurred and the security situation remains preoccupying. The Government has requested UNHCR to suspend operations in the Eastern part of the country. We shall limit our activities in Goma, Bukavu and Uvira to monitoring of on-going rehabilitation projects while we work toward re-establishing a solid base of cooperation with the Government.

In Rwanda, despite commendable efforts by the Government and the international community - led by UNHCR - to reintegrate almost two million people since 1994, the recent massive return from the former Zaire and Tanzania has contributed to further tension and violence, particularly in western prefectures. We have been cooperating closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in monitoring the situation of returnees, but insecurity has almost halted operations in many areas in the west since last February.

Humanitarian principles and the concerns of States

Mr Chairman, I am profoundly disturbed by the breakdown of fundamental humanitarian principles in the Great Lakes region and by the degree of inaction with which the international community has watched that breakdown occur. There is an urgent need for States to reaffirm their commitment to upholding such principles and to manifest more clearly their resolve to address the political dimensions of humanitarian crises.

I am convinced that our response to the complexities, dilemmas and tragedies of displacement must be firmly rooted in a framework of universally accepted principles. At the same time, I am acutely aware that certain groups operating from among large refugee populations may pose a very real threat to security and stability. Indeed, at the heart of the challenges we have faced has been the inability or unwillingness of the international community to separate those who deserve international protection from those who do not, and to prevent the latter from endangering refugees and nationals alike.

In the Great Lakes region, humanitarian agencies have been left alone, grappling with the dilemma of having to assist the innocent, and by so doing, to also unwittingly provide support to the guilty. But humanitarian agencies had no choice, if thousands of innocent lives were to be saved. The civilian nature of refugee camps - a fundamental tenet of refugee conventions - was not compromised by humanitarian action, but by the failure of States to provide political, material and military support to separate armed elements and political extremists from refugees. It was this failure, Mr Chairman - not providing food and shelter to refugees - which eventually put humanitarian action on an inevitable collision course with the security concerns of States in the region.

If we are to preserve the fundamental principles of refugee protection, it is essential that we find ways of fulfilling the protection needs of refugees in a manner which takes into due consideration the legitimate concerns of States. To achieve this, we need the support of Governments. We need States to assume their responsibilities under international law. Some of the appalling problems encountered in the Great Lakes Region could have been avoided had States supported our actions and well-established principles more decisively. Refugee camps should have been located well away from borders. The civilian character of refugee settlements should have been preserved by removing armed elements and intimidators. Those who had committed serious crimes should have been brought to justice. Failure to respond to our repeated proposals to implement such basic measures exacerbated insecurity and conflict.

The Great Lakes crisis provides a dramatic demonstration of some of the most serious humanitarian dilemmas we face today. I do not wish, however, to imply that the current crisis in the implementation of fundamental humanitarian principles is not an issue in other parts of the world, including the most affluent countries. Quite to the contrary, increasingly restrictive trends in the grant of asylum in industrialized states, including rejection of asylum seekers at border, interdiction at sea and narrow interpretation of the refugee definition are cause for grave disquiet. If affluent countries do not set positive examples in respecting refugee rights, how can we ask developing countries, beset by very serious economic problems, to continue to apply open and generous refugee policies?

Reintegration of returnees in post-conflict situations

Mr Chairman, when the Cold War ended, we believed that solutions to refugee problems - and repatriation in particular - would become much easier to achieve. This has been indeed true in some situations. The increasing frequency and harshness of internal conflicts, however, is complicating the solution of a number of refugee problems in different parts of the world. While repatriation continues to be the preferable solution to the plight of refugees - especially in situations of mass displacement - the reintegration of returnees in the aftermath of conflict can be extremely problematic in certain cases. This is particularly true in situations where the root causes of these conflicts have not yet been entirely resolved, as our recent experience in the Great Lakes region, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere has shown.

As a result of efforts to strengthen our preparedness and response capacity in the last few years, we have enhanced our expertise and ability to deal not only with organised returns but also with what we have come to call "repatriation emergencies". For, increasingly, refugees are returning to situations of acute insecurity and physical destruction. While the desire of Governments to see rapid repatriation is fully understandable, we need to remind ourselves that repatriation at the wrong time and under the wrong conditions is not only a contravention of the rights of refugees but can also endanger the prospects for reconciliation and longer-term security. Timely, orderly return, and reintegration in conditions of safety and dignity, on the other hand, can make an important contribution to peace-building and help prevent any resurgence of conflict and displacement.

Amongst the harsh realities faced by many returnees are fragile security, the presence of landmines, inadequate judicial processes, issues of land property and availability, and the destruction of economic, social and legal infrastructures. Under such circumstances, special attention needs to be given to the ways in which multilateral actors and the international community as a whole can promote reintegration, reconstruction and reconciliation under highly unstable conditions. I believe that this calls for a far more sustained and coordinated commitment to peace-building than has hitherto been the case.

Let me give some concrete examples of the difficulties faced and of the approaches we are adopting. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrates the variety of reintegration challenges that UNHCR has been tackling to make repatriation successful and sustainable. Since Dayton, close to 183,000 refugees and 200,000 internally displaced persons have returned to their home areas. While no small achievement, this is but a relatively modest proportion of the two million displaced by the conflict. Moreover, the returns have been overwhelmingly to majority areas where the main challenge has been one of physical reconstruction.

In order to promote returns to minority areas, we have launched a number of initiatives. We have focused on facilitating freedom of movement by running inter-entity bus lines. We have applied positive conditionality by providing or promoting additional assistance to towns favouring the return and reintegration of all communities, which are declared "Open Cities". Through the Bosnian Women's Initiative, we have sought to support the role of women in reconciliation and promote capacity building. A similar programme is now being implemented also in Rwanda. Finally, we have appealed to the solidarity of host communities in countries of asylum through "Twin City" arrangements. But much stronger political support, and continued military presence to create a safe environment for return, are indispensable if we are to succeed in bringing refugees and displaced persons back to their places of origin and to play our part in rebuilding a stable and multi-ethnic society.

The return of about two million Rwandans to their country since 1994 has also posed colossal challenges, compounded - as I have said - by grave insecurity. The reintegration of returnees, however, must be supported if we wish peace to be restored in the region. In Rwanda, UNHCR and UNDP have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, and, together with the Government, have established a joint unit to facilitate the integration of UNHCR activities in the broader rehabilitation and development programmes in the country.

I believe that a positive aspect of UNHCR's reintegration activities world-wide is their focus, through quick impact and other projects, on the "grass roots" level, and on returnees and their communities as primary actors in their own reintegration. By focusing assistance on communities of return and by encouraging individuals to be active participants in rebuilding their societies, we are also promoting reconciliation. But our efforts can meet only a small part of overall requirements. There is a need to further develop comprehensive strategies bringing together political, developmental and humanitarian actors and initiatives. I would like to insist in particular on the importance of the involvement of development agencies at the onset of crises, during the planning phase. UNHCR cannot and will not do development work, but we want repatriation to be sustainable. Our concern is that the social, economic and psychological needs of returnees be addressed by longer term schemes, and that initial, quick-impact humanitarian activities supporting returnees eventually merge into broader development programmes.

A more comprehensive and better coordinated UN approach

As a step in this direction, my Office has made efforts to systematise relations with its development and human rights partners. In addition to the traditional close cooperation with UNICEF, WFP, ICRC, IOM and many NGOs, the new Framework for Cooperation concluded with UNDP, collaboration with the World Bank in developing new approaches to post-conflict reconstruction, and Memoranda of Understanding concluded with Human Rights field operations are examples of measures taken more recently. We are ready to participate actively in a common United Nations endeavour for early planning, and for implementing post-conflict rehabilitation strategies in a collaborative manner. In this respect, the emphasis placed by the Secretary-General on the development of an integrated, system-wide United Nations - strategy at the country level is welcomed by my Office as an important factor in securing lasting repatriation solutions.

These efforts must obviously be seen in the broader context of UN reform. I am encouraged by initiatives to bring greater coherence to the work of the United Nations in the fields of peace and security, development, social and humanitarian affairs. I hope that they will help streamline the coordination of humanitarian work by reducing layers of bureaucracy and improving the exchange of information. I am also encouraged by a growing realization of the links between State security and human security, and I am pleased to note that humanitarian problems are increasingly prominent on the agenda of the Security Council.

Concluding remarks

Before concluding I would like to express my gratitude for the continued financial support provided to UNHCR by donor governments. I am concerned, however, by the decrease in financing of activities funded under the General Programme. A shortfall of almost 50 million US dollars in the 1997 General Programme, and the possibility that this gap will widen in 1998, hamper our ability to protect and assist refugees in non-emergency situations, and to carry out key functions such as promotion of refugee law, training, and research. Certain special operations, such as the Liberian, Angolan and Tajik repatriations, must also receive greater financial support if our efforts to seek and implement solutions to refugee problems are to be successful. I trust that next Friday's pledging conference will address some of our funding needs.

Mr Chairman, I have begun my statement by providing some positive news about a decrease in the number of people of concern to my Office. We should not forget, however, that over 30 civil wars and many other, less extensive, but often equally bitter conflicts are currently being fought around the world - I am particularly concerned by the situation in Afghanistan, parts of Central and Southern Asia, and regions of Africa besides the Great Lakes. All too often, the combined effects of civil war, ethnic conflict, persecution, massive human rights abuses and disruption of livelihoods lead to the displacement of mixed populations. Innocent refugees, the majority of them women and children, find themselves caught up with defeated military elements, political extremists intent on regaining power, and even persons who have committed crimes against humanity. Civilian populations are more and more frequently a specific target of rival groups contending for control of territory or people.

Humanitarian agencies are compelled to work in such situations of conflict, to which the international community is generally reluctant to even send military forces. As a result, my staff and the staff of our partner agencies - unarmed and unprotected - increasingly find themselves in dangerous situations, are often caught in crossfire, and can sometimes become targets of direct attacks. This is totally unacceptable, Mr Chairman, and I wish to request all possible support from governments to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff, in particular national staff, who are the most exposed.

In conclusion, the progress we have made in operational response capacity must now be matched by equally rapid and effective mechanisms at the political level. It is through the political will of governments that must be provided the framework for building lasting solutions in fractured societies. This is not only the common responsibility of States, it is also their common interest. UNHCR and its partner agencies will continue carrying out their humanitarian task with the resolve and commitment which they have always shown, but I believe that we still need much greater determination in terms of conflict prevention and conflict resolution. There can be no better investment in our future security than in preventing and resolving the divisive and destabilizing problems that provoke refugee flows and other forms of forced displacement.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.